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Journal Of an Audio Student: Lesson 3–Analog vs. Digital

It’s been a few months since we posted in this “Journal Of an Audio Student” series (go here, here, here and here to catch up), but as a reminder, I’ve been documenting my progress as a student of the Recording Connection Audio Institute, a mentor-apprentice course which is taken on-site in a real recording studio. I’m going through this program for my own enrichment as a DIY musician, and I’m really enjoying it. Below is my video entry for Lesson 3 of the program, discussing the differences between analog and digital recording.

In this lesson of the curriculum, we studied the basics of digital audio. While analog recording hasn’t gone away by any means, digital recording has really revolutionized many recording studios because it can simplify so many things, and it also costs a lot less to record digitally. In the studio, we’ve talked a lot about the differences between analog and digital sound, and the positives and negatives of each. Digital recording can reproduce a crisp, clean sound with very little noise, but it usually cuts off frequencies outside our hearing range to conserve memory. Analog can provide a “warmer” sound overall because those inaudible frequencies are still present (and we can feel them, even if we can’t hear them); however, as I said, analog recording is not very cost effective for a lot of bands or studios these days. All this to say that you pretty much have to learn some things about digital recording if you plan on working in a modern recording studio.

So in this lesson, we talked about sampling rates, and how digital recording works by capturing thousands of samples or “audio snapshots” of a sound every second to fool the brain into thinking you’re hearing one continuous sound–much the same way that motion pictures fool us into thinking we’re seeing continuous motion when we’re actually seeing 24 or 30 pictures per second. We talked about the Nyquist Theorem, which basically says we can only record frequencies digitally that are up to half our sample rate before the sound starts folding over on itself, adding frequencies that we didn’t actually record. We also talked about how digital recording captures the amplitude or volume of the sound through a process called quantization–and how recording at higher bit rates can reduce the amount of quantization error.

Behind all the math involved in trying to understand how digital recording works, it was actually very interesting to me to see how these things play out in my mentor’s studio. Tim specializes in indie rock and live acoustic recordings, so he really likes to emulate analog sound in his studio whenever possible, but for cost and efficiency reasons he records digitally, like so many other studios do. To compensate for that, he’s found some ways to sweeten his sounds and make them more analog in nature. One of his tricks is that he actually prefers to use Sonar as his studio recording software, as opposed to Pro Tools, because Sonar records at higher sampling and bit rates than Pro Tools does.

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About the Author


Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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